“WHAT the?”....mumbled Paul Hughes, as his eyelids sprang apart like guilty lovers caught in mid-shag.
He wasn’t sure which unmerciful sensation had woken him: the almighty bang which sounded like a nuclear warhead being detonated precisely six feet from his left ear, the vicious shuddering of the small room which convinced him he was in the grip of some hurricane named after a girl, or the disconcerting sensation that a large, angry elephant was sitting squarely on his chest.
Paul desperately tried to silence the German oompah band which was making merry just behind his eyeballs. He had to think. Where the hell was he? But with all the racket, the shaking and the elephant-feeling and - he groggily realised - a hellish hangover, his thoughts were as greasy as a leftover chip buttie.
“Where the fuck am I?” he croaked, trying to hoist himself off the nest of silver blankets piled in the corner of what looked like a small, windowless storeroom. But he couldn’t move. The invisible elephant had him well pinned down. He lay back defeated. If he was in a hurricane, then this room was probably the best place for him.
Mind you, the travel agent in Dublin had sworn up and down that the hurricane season wouldn’t hit Florida until much later in the season. “Rest assured, we only send northsiders to Orlando when the hurricanes are due,” he had told them.
“Jen will have his bollix for earrings when we get home,” thought Paul, and despite his predicament, felt briefly sorry for the guy. But then he was seized by panic. Where WAS Jen?
Then through the fuggy cobweb of his brain, he remembered. He had waved her and the kids off at Miami airport yesterday morning (“assuming it was yesterday,” he groaned, clutching his battered skull). He was staying on in America for a couple of extra days. Rothco had just landed a prestigious new American client, NASA, and he was meeting with the head guys to brainstorm some ideas.
He had been so excited when the call came. NASA were going back to the Moon, but Houston had a problem. “The Moon ain’t sexy. It’s just a big frigging ball of nothing in particular,” explained NASA’s director, Colonel Truman T. Speissberger. “It doesn’t have any little green men. It doesn’t even have a Starbucks, for chrissake. We need to brand the goddam thing. Turn it into the iPod of the solar system,” he barked. “I was told that you are an expert on astronomy....though there is the question of your injury,” added Colonel Speissberger.
Paul was puzzled. “What were you told about me?” he asked cautiously.
“Just that you are a bleeding spacer,” explained the colonel.
Paul reassured the NASA big wheel that he was in excellent health, and two weeks later, here he was, making his pitch for the Moon. But where exactly was he?
He vaguely remembered hitting a few bars after the meeting with a couple of friendly rocket scientists. The first bar they had walked into was almost empty. One of the scientists looked around and shook his head. “Let’s get out of here. It’s like the Moon in here. No atmosphere”.
The second bar was much better, and the three of them tackled the cocktail list: Sex on The Sea of Tranquility, Michael Collins, Cosmospolitans, and trays of Slippery Shuttle shots.
But try as he might, Paul couldn’t remember much about leaving the bar. He dimly recalled the giggling scientists promising to get him a ringside seat for the moon launch at sunrise, then there was some sort of jeep ride, and a lot of shushing as they tried to tiptoe into some sort of small building. But he could remember no more. If only the infernal racket would stop, maybe he could fill in the gaps.
And right then, all the commotion suddenly stopped. The brutal shaking and eye-popping roaring ceased, and the elephant vanished off his chest. Paul blew a sigh of relief, and sat up. And up. And up. He floated gently off the floor, and drifted upwards.
His stomach churned and his mind reeled, as it began to dawn on him just where he was. But he wasn’t going to panic, he thought, as he bumped gently against the ceiling. He took a deep breath: “AAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHH! GETMEFUCKINGOUUTOFHEEEEEERE!”
Seconds later, the hatch-like door drifted open, and a tall lanky figure floated into the room. The man stared in utter disbelief at the sight of a shaven-headed, goateed bloke in a lurid blue and orange Hawaiian shirt dotted with palm-trees and bananas bobbing about, clutching his head with one hand, and a cold, half-eaten kebab in the other.
“Where the fuck did you come from?” yelled the man in total shock. “Are you a Chinese spy or what?”he demanded.
Paul recognised the guy immediately. He was Commander Geronimo Murphy, captain of the Britney I space shuttle. His mother was a Cherokee from Tennessee, and his father an Apache from Darndale.
“Do I look like a shagging Chinaman?” shouted Paul, waving his kebab in slo-mo. “This is someone’s idea of taking the piss. I’m supposed to be branding the moon, not flying to the fucking thing!”
Geronimo paled. “You’re having me on, bud! Are you trying to tell me you’re a stowaway? Unfriggingbelievable,” he shook his head, aghast. “Now what the hell are we going to do!” he muttered, grabbing Paul’s foot as it floated past. He turned in mid-air and expertly glided back out through the door, dragging Paul like a sack of rubbish behind him. “Wait till the folks back on Earth get a load of this!” he muttered.
“What do you mean, back on Earth!” shrieked Paul. “We’ve just taken off! Turn the rocket around!” The astronaut chuckled grimly. “This isn’t a fucking Ryanair flight, dick-brain. We’re already 50,000 miles from Cape Canaveral. There is no going back, unless NASA want to chuck the whole mission down the toilet.”
Geronimo suddenly grabbed Paul’s leg and hauled him down through a narrow round hatch.”Guess what guys - we’ve got a fourth for poker,” he announced. As Paul tumbled into the room, he grabbed hold of a metal rail and jerked to a halt. Now there were two more pairs of eyes staring at him in utter disbelief. In the shocked silence, all Paul could hear was the gravelly voice of Johnny Cash in the background, moaning about his Ring of Fire. Dimly, Paul found himself hoping that the lads had some Green Day or Interpol CDs, otherwise it was going to be a long trip.
Then the silence was shattered and Johnny drowned out by a babble of questions from the two other astronauts, who Paul knew were Sam Silvermint and Homer Bush.
But he wasn’t listening; he was struck dumb by the sight outside the window in front of him. For there, suspended in the inkiest blackness he’d ever seen, was the Moon, bigger and brighter than usual. He turned, and out the back window was a visibly-shrinking Earth. This was no nightmare - he was in outer space. His stomach suddenly lurched. “Sorry about this,” he interrupted apologetically. “But I think I’m about to barf”.
That shut the trio up, as they floated about in a panic, trying to find a sick-bag. “Shit,” shouted Geronimo. “I’m not doing my first moonwalk while covered in bits of kebab! Just take some deep breaths, willya?” he demanded.
Paul did as he was asked, and slowly he began to feel a little better. The three astronauts regarded him perplexedly. “What are we gonna do with him?” moaned Homer Bush. “Maybe he’s a member of Al-Qaeda! Is he Osama in disguise!” he said excitedly. The other pair threw their eyes upwards, and Paul stifled a grin. He’d read that the only reason Homer was on board was that the President thought that sending his cousin into space would be good for his ratings. Dubya would’ve gone himself, but NASA couldn’t fit his exercise bike into the rocket.
Sam snorted. “Homer - go make us some coffee while we phone home about our ET here,” he ordered, as the First Cousin floated dejectedly towards the galley.”And make mine a skinny decaff latte!” Sam yelled after him.”
“I thought you guys just ate and drank space-pills,” remarked an impressed Paul. “Hell no,” said Sam. “We got Jamie Oliver to cater this trip. It’s veal parmigiana and summer vegetables for dinner tonight. And a cheeseboard,” he said, licking his lips.
The Commander sighed and sat in front of a large screen which looked like a plasma tv. “It’ll be someone’s ass roasted for dinner tonight, when they find out about this looper,” he muttered, flicking a switch. “Erm, Britney calling. We have a problem..” he began.
“Britney, why aren’t you on visual?” demanded a disembodied voice.
“Well, we’ve just discovered that we’re carrying some unusual extra payload,” said Geronimo cautiously.
At that moment, 50,000 miles below, the head of mission control, Jasper M Bunberger, was showing off to a select handful of television reporters who were touring the control centre. It was then he made his fateful decision.
“Don’t be silly, Britney,” he said jovially, reaching for the visual override button. “So Homer managed to sneak his collection of Ken and Barbie dolls on board.....?” he smirked as the screen lit up.
And so it came to pass that images of Paul Hughes trying to stay upright while blowing on his too-hot latte were simultaneously beamed around the globe. The pandemonium was immediate, especially when NASA confirmed that the mission would continue. “As long as Mr Hughes stays indoors and doesn’t touch anything, he’ll be fine,” Jasper M Bunberger assured the packed press conference.
The Irish nation went into celebration. Not only was Paul the first Irishman in space, but he’d bunked onto the rocket while totally shit-faced. “That’s exactly how St Brendan sailed to the New World,” explained Gerry Ryan to his listeners. “He was heading for an early house on Clare Island, but missed the turn and just kept going”.
There was an initial fuss when it was discovered that Paul could be claimed by the Brits as one of their own, and Tony Blair quietly offered to hand the North back to the Republic, if the Republic handed over Paul. But Bertie was having none of it. “Shag off, Tony,” he roared. “I’ve just ordered a new tin of fruit from Louis Copeland for the welcome home hooley. Find yer own rocket to bunk onto!”
Not everyone was thrilled. Paul was happily snacking on a delicate crab-cake, when suddenly a familiar voice boomed out from the screen behind him. “You’re a total plonker, you know”.
Paul tried to smile. “Jen! Look - I would’ve called, but I couldn’t get a signal here in outer space. Not even texting works!” he said weakly, waving his mobile phone at the screen, from where his wife’s thunderous countenance glared at him.
“Well, what the fuck are you doing there in the first place? Is Disco with you? And now there’s millions of bloody reporters surrounding the house - I can’t even back out the Merc without running over a couple of them,” she fumed. “And I don’t suppose you’re going to be back in time for the dinner at Ciara McAllister’s on Saturday, are you?”
“Christ,” whispered Geromino from the corner. “The first man to be nagged in space!”
Paul ignored him. “Listen honey, I know I fucked up, but I’ll bring you home something special..” he said, but Jenny just snorted. “You better be the first man to find a diamond mine on the moon, in that case - hang on, the kids want to say hello”.
Paul smiled as the lovely face of his daughter Ruby popped into view. “Hello sweetie,” he said tenderly.
They chatted about the solar system and stuff for a while, then Ruby paused. “Now dad. Will you promise me one thing?” she asked seriously.
“Of course, pet,” he said.
“Don’t do anything uncool while you’re on the Moon, ok?”
Paul waited for the blond head of his son Harry to appear, but there was no sign of him. He could hear Jen in the background shouting at him to come and say hello to daddy. Then he just had time to hear Harry’s voice faintly protest, “I’m watching Drake and Josh! I’ll be along in a minute!” before the screen went blank.
Much to his surprise, Paul found himself beginning to enjoy the three-day trip to the Moon - although the trauma of finding out how astronauts had to poo in zero-gravity was enough to make him swear off solid food until they returned to Earth.
He got on excellently with Geronimo and Sam, and the three of them had great fun picking on Homer - although in retrospect, they probably shouldn’t have covered the back window with black paper and told him that his cousin had lost the plot and blown up Earth. It had taken them hours to calm Homer down.
And his family had become quite famous back home; Jen had re-appeared to show him the lovely spread in ‘Hello!’ of herself and the kids in their beautiful, well-appointed Blackrock mansion, and to announce that Mary Harney had turned up on the doorstep to ask her to run for the PD’s in the next election. “For a horrible moment I thought she was that Shinner, Mary-Lou, and I almost told her to feck off!” cackled Jen.
Then, on the third day, Paul was taking a nap when he felt someone shake him. “Get up, Paul,” said Sam hurriedly. “We’re almost there, so we need our space suits!”. Paul reluctantly crawled off his cosy nest of silver space suits. They made such a comfy bed.
By then time he made his way up to the main cockpit, he found that Britney had already arrived at the dark side of the moon, where they were due to make the first-ever landing. No human had ever walked on the far side of the planet, and Paul felt a surge of pride that he was present to witness this special moment in time.
“Dang!” Geronimo suddenly said, pointing to the surface. “I can’t believe the Germans beat us to it - isn’t that a towel on the ground down there?” They were all laughing so heartily that they almost overshot the landing-site, a flat stretch of dirt, beside a large round rock.
As the Britney slowly descended and settled onto the site, Sam looked at his map and frowned. “That rock isn’t marked here. It must be a recent asteroid,” he said, puzzled.
They all gathered around the window and regarded the strange rock. Sam shrugged: “Well, it’ll take a couple of hours to set up communications with Earth from this side, so we’ll have to figure -”
Suddenly, the rock came alive. Small round portholes of light began of dance on its pitted black surface and a low rumble rose from it. As the four of them watched in appalled horror, a portion of the ‘rock’ began to yawn open.
Homer began to whimper. “Oh my god! It’s Al-Qaeda! We’re all gonna die!”
Geronimo whipped around and felled Homer with a well-placed right-hook, knocking him out cold. “You moron! Anyone except a brain-dead halfwit can see it’s a UFO!” he shouted.
The Commander turned to Paul and Sam, who were frozen to the spot as they shook with fear and excitement. “This is it, fellas! We’re about to enter history. We are standing on the brink of a new dawn, when we extend the olive branch of humanity to alien travellers who have traversed the universe to answer our age-old question. No, we are not alone,” he intoned.
Sam stared at him. “Did you just make that up now?” he asked.
They all fixed their eyes on the open hatch, wondering what sort of creatures would emerge. Did they want to meet or eat the Earthlings? Would they look all cute like ET, or would they be more like the hideous yoke that exploded out of John Hurt’s belly in ‘Alien’? The suspense was unbearable.
“Look!” croaked Geronimo, grabbing onto Sam’s arm. “Someone’s coming out!
They held their breath as a figure slowly emerged from the darkness of the alien craft. It carefully stepped out of the shadows and stood still, waiting.
Geronimo and Sam couldn’t believe it. The creature was tall, roughly human in shape. It had three eyes, which were surrounded by a growth of what looked like ginger short-cropped hair which circled its head and which ended in an untidy tuft at its chin. But most startling was the space suit which covered its entire body from neck to feet. Made from a thin, shimmery silk-like material, it was oddly familiar. It was blue and orange, and patterned with palm trees and bananas.
The two astronauts looked at the alien, then slowly turned as one and stared at Paul.
Paul grinned and reached for a sliver of foie gras. “Deadly,” he said happily. “They’re just like us”.